BMCR 2014.03.08

Agriculture and Taxation in Early Ptolemaic Egypt: Demotic Land Surveys and Accounts (P. Agri). Papyrologische Texte und Abhandlungen, 46

, Agriculture and Taxation in Early Ptolemaic Egypt: Demotic Land Surveys and Accounts (P. Agri). Papyrologische Texte und Abhandlungen, 46. Bonn: Dr. Rudolf Habelt Verlag, 2012. xii, 176; 30 plates. ISBN 9783774938076. €65.00.

Table of Contents

In 2012, Andrew Monson published a seminal study, From the Ptolemies to the Romans: Political and Economic Change in Egypt (Cambridge), that examines and assesses the changes in many aspects of land tenure and taxation based upon the evidence of Greek and Demotic papyri from Egypt. He supplemented that survey with the book under review, where he transcribes and translates twelve Demotic agricultural texts of the early Ptolemaic Period, including most prominently, P. Cair. II 31073(a) and (b), with accompanying detailed commentary, and compares the texts to related Demotic texts. These twelve texts provide evidence of the fundamental changes that took place in the early part of the transition from the pharaonic agricultural economy of the Late Period to the institutions of the Graeco-Roman economy which, while often rooted in the pharaonic epoch, were transformed and supplemented by some radical innovations and initiatives that were intrinsic to the Hellenization of Egypt, the transition of power this entailed, and the peculiar topography of the Nile Delta. Monson scrupulously analyzes details of these texts in the hope of reducing the many gaps that remain in our understanding of early Ptolemaic agriculture and taxation. While occasionally referring to texts from the Roman period in Egypt, Monson does not address or assess the transformation of either land tenure or taxation under Roman rule.

This book is geared to an audience of scholars of pharaonic and Graeco-Roman Egypt as well as students of ancient agriculture who can follow the Demotic texts. A caveat is that one must become familiar with the textual material at the end of the book before attempting to follow the preceding thirty-three-page discussion (1-33). In the discussion, quotations from the texts are few but references to the texts by number alone are many and potentially confusing. One must also read very carefully because there is considerable discussion of other documents interwoven with the content of the Cairo texts).1

Part I Introduction. Monson began this project by translating the Demotic texts that Wilhelm Spiegelberg entered into his unpublished corpus of Demotic texts in the Cairo Museum in 1908 as P. Cair. II 31073(a) and (b), described as an account concerning agriculture (1-2). Untranscribed, untranslated, and poorly photographed, these and other texts of Spiegelberg’s Cairo corpus remained in relative obscurity for nearly a century. Monson set out to remedy this oversight because of similarities between Text 1, Land Survey by Cultivator, and the Demotic land surveys from the third and second centuries BCE, few of which have been published. Similarly, few topographical surveys resembling Text 3 are currently available. By publishing the Cairo texts, with many new photographs,2 Monson expands the corpus of Greek and Demotic agricultural texts available to scholars so that in time it may be possible to comprehend “the appropriation and the adaptation of Egyptian scribal practices within the Greek administration, not to mention its importance for the social and economic history of Ptolemaic Egypt” (1). Texts relating to taxation, in particular, require attention to fill the gap that prevents the understanding of the transitional Ptolemaic period.

After discussing the place of the documents in the economic literature and describing their contents, Monson (2-3) addresses the uncertain provenance of Text 1 (P. Cair. II 31073(a) recto), the first of many issues that could not be satisfactorily resolved in this study, though directions for further discussion are suggested.

Monson next moves on to the dating of Text 1 (4-5) since it commences with the regnal year and month but omits the day. Monson favours the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus since, by the second century BCE, village scribes wrote extensively in Greek rather than Demotic according to evidence from Kerkeosiris, Oxyrhynchus, and Magdola.

Part II, Historical Analysis, begins with a consideration of the relatively low population density of the Fayyum (90,000 or 67 per sq km) and its ethnic composition in the context of the rapid agricultural development that unfolded as the early Ptolemies shaped Fayyumic agrarian institutions during the third century BCE (7-9). Monson examines the immigration from the Greek world and the resulting allotments of land to soldiers (especially cavalrymen) who were settled in the Fayyum as reward for their service, following the pharaonic tradition of rewarding veterans with land that traces back to Ahmose in the early Eighteenth Dynasty.

Temple and cleruchic lands receive detailed treatment (9-12) since the Cairo texts provide a valuable source of information about land tenure patterns in early Ptolemaic Egypt. The Ptolemaic Fayyum is especially important because of the relatively low population density in an area lacking earlier administrative institutions/administrative organization, distinguishing the Fayyum from other parts of Ptolemaic Egypt.

“Tenure on Royal Land” (12-18) is devoted to the great extent of new land under royal management documented in texts 3 and 4. Monson reflects upon pharaonic documents, specifically the Ramesside Wilbour Papyrus that distinguishes between two regimes of landholding where land was farmed by (royal) cultivators on behalf of the temples/king and by private possessors of the land (smallholders) who worked on special temple domains.3 Tenth century P. Reinhardt is also important for its relevance to Monson’s Texts 3 and 4 and the evolution of land tenure after Wilbour but prior to the beginning of the Ptolemaic Period.4 Text 1, moreover, is valuable for the evidence it provides of transfers of royal land among peasants as well as to and from villages collectively. The role of the village scribe in authorizing these transfers through changes to the land register is correctly judged to have pharaonic roots.

In “Rents on Royal Land” (18-22), where consideration is given to rents detailed in Text 1, col. 2 and Text 4, cols. 2-3, no mention is made of the assessment of royal revenues. Moreover, there is also no mention of land or harvest taxes on cleruchic holdings until the second century BCE. This is surprising in light of the fact that grain rents were the main source of Ptolemaic income (19). Vineyards and gardens, also assessed in grain rents, show great variability in rates that are evidently related to the use and the value of the land.

“Pastures and Animals” (22-27) examines the system by which officials sold the rights to pasturing animals and the collection of the produce of pasture land under royal administrative control, a system that has been hitherto elucidated only by Greek sources. Here we finally have evidence for this system from Demotic texts.

“Agricultural Production” (28-33) summarizes the evidence for the early Ptolemaic Period “sowing schedule” that governed the planting of crops in order to determine royal revenue and provide the desired quantities of goods. Details from the Cairo papyri concerning the proportion of various crops sown on royal land are all the more valuable in light of the disappearance of the sowing schedule after the third century BCE.

In summary, Andrew Monson has produced a sharply focused collection of agricultural texts that add many valuable details to the overall picture of agrarian development in the early Ptolemaic Period. The translation of census register 8 (P. Cair. II 50006(b) verso) exemplifies the progress that has been made since it can be compared to contemporary Fayyumic texts to confirm population estimates calculated for other villages.5 While it is frustrating that many points raised, including the provenance of the Cairo documents and the proportion of different crops sown on cleruchic and royal land, remain without resolution, the discussion of these texts in comparison with contemporary and near contemporary Demotic texts draws attention to some points not previously appreciated as being worthy of deeper investigation. For example, while land registers that provide a breakdown of crops sown are invaluable sources for Ptolemaic agricultural production, there is evidence that we have registers that reflect data derived from sowing schedules rather than actual production, as indicated by suspiciously round numbers in the summary of crops.

Monson’s view that it is only by increasing the size of the documentary corpus that solutions will eventually be found to the vexing problems that inevitably arise from a limited sample is certainly confirmed. His achievement is all the more valuable because, in studying texts from the early third century BCE, he focuses upon the key years when older systems of land tenure dominated by temples were evolving too slowly and uncreatively for the inevitable changes that government fiscal reform was causing as the economy moved towards a greater concentration of wealth in both royal and private hands. As more and more Demotic agricultural texts become available for study, we will better understand not only early Ptolemaic agriculture and taxation, but also the transition from pharaonic agricultural administration in its final stages to innovative Ptolemaic restructuring.


1. One can grasp the complexity of Monson’s presentation by consulting the pdf of pages 1-33 openly available at the url given above.

2. The more recent, higher quality photographs of many of the texts were taken from Erich Lüddeckens et al., Demotisches Namenbuch, Wiesbaden, 1988-2000, courtesy of Günter Vittmann.

1.3] Alan H. Gardiner, The Wilbour Papyrus, 3 volumes, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941-1948. For subsequent publications see Sally L.D. Katary, “ Land Tenure (To the End of the Ptolemaic Period),” UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology (UEE), 2012

4. Sven P. Vleeming. Papyrus Reinhardt: An Egyptian Land List from the Tenth Century B.C. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1983.

5. Willy Clarysse and Dorothy J. Thompson, Counting the People in Ptolemaic Egypt. Vol. 2 Historical Studies, Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.